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Metro Detroit's 'Big Four' tout vaccinations, COVID relief

Mike Martindale
The Detroit News

Detroit — Metro Detroit’s Big Four leaders touted joint efforts to vaccinate residents against COVID-19 during a joint forum Thursday but cautioned that much remains to be done to conquer the virus and end the year-long pandemic.

Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan, Oakland County Executive David Coulter, Macomb County Executive Mark Hackel and Wayne County Executive Warren Evans said they look forward to millions of dollars in federal COVID relief as vaccination efforts expand to the general adult population next month.

Oakland County Executive David Coulter

“No individual can do anything by themselves,” said Coulter, referring to ongoing testing and vaccination efforts. “This has been an example of regional cooperation.”

All four said joint efforts and citizen cooperation need to increase if any are to meet the goal of 70% vaccination or “community immunity” as described by Coulter. “The next thirty to 45 days is important,” Coulter said, nothing that infection rates have increased even as dose distribution expands.

During Thursday's event, sponsored by the Detroit Regional Chamber and conducted remotely, the four leaders responded to questions posed by moderator Carol Cain.

Duggan referred to his city’s drive since last March for testing and the ramping-up of vaccinations since December as “all about the team.” He said the city escalated from vaccinating 5,000 citizens the first week, to averaging 15,000 weekly and now 40,000 a week.

Evans and Hackel — both former sheriffs in Wayne and Macomb counties — said their law enforcement backgrounds were helpful in “pivoting” to address the rising number of cases as more residents tested positive and required hospitalization.

Wayne County Executive Warren Evans

All four said they could use more vaccines but said they are getting doses into arms as quickly as possible.

“This is not over,” said Evans. “We have seen a spike in Wayne County (cases) as well. People need to take a deep breath and continue to do what is needed for the next couple months.”

Hackel predicted family physicians and medical professionals would be needed to convince citizens to get the vaccine in some cases “if we are going to get close to 60 or 70%” compliance.

All four expressed gratitude over the approval of COVID relief dollars, with $4.4 billion earmarked for Michigan's local governments.

Evans, whose county will receive $340 million, said officials are “still trying to put a plan together” and eager to receive federal guidance on permissible expenditures to help COVID-impacted businesses and restaurants and health departments.

Duggan said the $880 million earmarked for Detroit will be spent over a four-year period and immediately be utilized to bring back 750 employees laid off because of a $180 million revenue shortfall.

Hackel, whose county will receive $169 million, said his focus will be to meet current and future health department needs and Coulter said $244 million slated for Oakland County will be put toward immediate, short-term COVID-related health needs and, depending on U.S. Treasury rules, some infrastructure aid.

Macomb County Executive Mark Hackel

“This is a once-in-a-lifetime transfer of money,” Coulter said.

Some positive things have grown out of the pandemic, officials agreed.

All four said commercial real estate development has increased during the past year.

“We have more construction going on in Detroit than any time in the last 50 years,” Duggan said.

All agreed that the pandemic may impact the demand office space for years to come. Duggan noted many city employees are working for home. Hackel predicted “remote work is going to increase” in Macomb County and elsewhere.

Evans said his county is receiving more business applications than before the pandemic began.

“I have some county employees who I wish could remain working at home forever,” Evans said. “Their productivity has increased significantly. They are able to take care of their work and their families more easily.

“I have others who need closer supervision, need a chokehold on them,” he said.

Hackel stressed “good things are happening in Macomb” and that he has had conversations about future projects of mutual interest with the other officials.

Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan

All said they were still interested in “fixing the damn roads” as Gov. Gretchen Whitmer has urged, but face voter opposition to new taxes. They said their transportation staffs say what is needed are joint efforts, including with state government, in finding ways to pay for the repairs.

“We have to approach this as an investment,” Coulter said.

Hackel, whose county recently obtained $100 million in federal funds to rebuild Mound Road from Interstate 696 to M-59, added “it’s not fixing the roads, it's fixing the funding.”

Evans said Wayne County has an ongoing 10-year study on how to repair and maintain its roads, part of the oldest infrastructure and transportation system in the state. Regional transportation discussions, set aside during the pandemic, are expected to pick up steam once health concerns are resolved.

While a regional system still presents a challenge, leaders agreed that the pandemic underscored the need for a more reliable transit system, if only enhancements of existing DDOT and SMART bus systems.

All officials expressed confidence that the region would successfully resolve virus problems and move on to other traditional concerns.

“We are not only going to survive, we are going to thrive,” Coulter said. “'Thrive’ will not be out of our vocabulary.”

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